In her job as a literary agent to bestselling authors including Adam Kay and Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Cathryn Summerhayes decamps to the town of books every year for the 'Woodstock of Words' that is the Hay Festival. But it’s visiting with her husband Jamie and young family to explore the great outdoors that really turns her page.
Over to them to share the inside track…
Outsiders on the inside
Full disclosure: I’m not from Hay, I’m from Cardiff. Jamie is from London. When we married, we decided to meet on the border; Hay seemed a natural choice, in the beautiful Llanstephan Church (20 mins’ drive, and worth it just for the suspension bridge). We tend to come back at least twice a year. Like many outsiders, we love the place and feel so welcomed that each arrival feels like a homecoming.
The Hay Festival is part of our annual calendar, and we love the array of readings, talks, debates; the activities for the kids and parties for grownups. But there’s much more to see and do in and around Hay-on-Wye than the Festival, and our visits are always busy.
Shop, drink, dine
Shopping in Hay-on-Wye is fun. Of course, the town is famed for its many bookshops. Most people talk about the beautifully restored Booth’s Books, but some of the smaller businesses are worth a mention, too. Rose’s Books specialise in rare and out-of-print children’s books and is a wonderful place to buy gifts or just to wallow in nostalgia. Also hard to resist is Murder and Mayhem, the crime and horror bookshop, with two floors of classic detective and mystery novels.
There’s more to Hay than just books, and if Jamie goes missing he can often be found trawling through the second-hand vinyl at Haystacks, with its wide and well-ordered selection. Or he’ll be looking through the eclectic range of retro homewares, clothes and furniture at The Old Electric Shop – who also has a lovely café during the day, and sometimes have live music and deliciously potent cocktails in the evening; well worth a visit. Hay is not short of places to eat and drink. There’s a beautiful beer garden at Kilverts (site of the original Hay Festival). The Old Black Lion does high-end pub-grub and offers B&B. They also have a decent wine list, and offer a good range of well-kept local ales.
Boats, bikes and by foot
While the town itself has many charms, perhaps its best feature is its location. With the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons, the winding River Wye, lakes and forests, there is no shortage of ways to enjoy the stunning scenery.
Want to Canoe? offer tailored excursions, from half a day to a week, allowing you to explore the river at your own pace, camping at the riverside and visiting historic sites along the way. Other companies (Wye Valley Canoes, Left Bank Canoe Hire) run regular services on the four-mile stretch between Glasbury and Hay, and it’s lovely to stop for a picnic at one of the many secluded spots along the river. Alternatively, if you’re not keen on canoeing, you could opt to spend a gentle afternoon at the river beach the locals call The Warren, skimming stones, tucking into the masterful pork pies available from Gibbons Family Butchers, and watching canoeists capsize on the gentle rapids.
Another fun way to explore the area is by bike. Drover Cycles offer good mountain bikes for hire, and can advise on some great off-road loops in the area, from a green (easy) four miles to a black (killer) 28-mile loop, which takes all day, and hurts – Jamie did this one last year, and still shows off the scars. If road-cycling is more your thing, you’ll enjoy (!) the long climb up to the Gospel Pass, the highest public road in Wales, nestled between Hay Bluff and Twmpa, which offers one of the most spectacular panoramas in the area. Drop down into the next valley (either on-road or off, depending on your tyres) and you’ll find the enchanting 12th-century Llanthony Priory. Though the church is now in ruins, the pub thankfully is not, and as well as offering a fine selection of beers, they do good food if you need a rest before the long climb back. You can, of course, reach the Priory by car, and there’s a little (very basic) campsite there too.
There are many wonderful walks in the area, and Hay is a great place to base yourself for a walking holiday. Be sure to grab an OS map (Landranger 161), available from any good bookshop (which, in Hay, shouldn’t be hard to find). For a gentle walk, there are lots of forestry tracks to follow, such as the Hay Forest at Felindre, or further afield there’s a nice circular route in the forest above Llaneglwys, with plenty of stunning views. For the hardier walker, the Pen y Fan and Corn Du circular walk promises to exhaust and exhilarate. If you’re not confident walking without a guide, but are keen to explore, Outdoors@Hay offers a wide range of activities from beginners’ orienteering to bushcraft skills, and wild camping, high in the Black Mountains.